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01.05.2000 Feature Article

A Day That Lives In Infamy

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It is possible to make too much of the role of the police in the May 9 disaster that resulted in the death of 126 Ghanaians at the Accra Sports Stadium. It is also possible to make too little of it. In the aftermath of perhaps the worst one-day loss of lives in recent Ghana history, it is hard to muster enough sympathy for the actions of the police that resulted directly in the deaths. President Kuffour acted in characteristic manner as a national leader, when he sought to discourage the urge to rush to judgement, by cautioning: "This is not the time to apportion blame or seek scapegoats. Let us not rush to judgement." Others were less sanguine by their rush to judgement. Some people in Kotobaabi and Nima suburbs of Accra reportedly decided to take the law into their own hands and caused further carnage.
The actions of some of the youth of Nima was particularly deplorable. Apart from attacking innocent citizens and their property, and vandalizing a police station, the Nima thugs held aloft photos of former president Rawlings. It is regrettable that neither the former president, nor the National Democratic Congress (NDC) has sought to disassociate the Rawlings' name from the inane demonstration. Jerry Rawlings has had his twenty years! J.A. Kuffuor is the deal now!!
Rather, than chastising the rampaging youth, Alban Bagbin, the Minority leader and MP for Nadowli North; unwisely encouraged the Nima thugs on, by proclaiming their criminal and irresponsible action as expressing "their rightful indignation at the needless death of their friends and relations..." One cannot help but ask Mr. Bagbin when did arson, rampage, and physical attacks on innocent citizens and the police, become part of a funeral cortege! Mr. Bagbin' statement does not show responsible political leadership, neither does it contribute to national reconciliation at a time when we need it most. The statement lends more ammunition to conspiracy theorists who see the hidden hand of the NDC in the disturbances, as being part of a nefarious effort to create an aura of confusion and instability in the land. It does not help matters that E.T. Mensah, the MP for Prampram, and NDC National Youth Organizer, miraculously happened on the scene at Nima, only to be serenaded by the rampaging youth! Ignoring president Kuffour's plea to Ghanaians not to "politicize' the tragedy, the NDC flagrantly decided to play politics on the graves of the dearly departed!!
Then, there is the action taken by the Ghana Bar Association (GBA); a sober body representing lawyers who are known and respected for withholding judgement until all the facts of a case are considered. Incredulously, the GBA exercised no such restraint this time. Hurriedly, it put the blame on the police. In a statement signed by its president J. Ebow Quarshie, the GBA concluded: "The police were sent to the stadium to prevent crowd violence and not to create an unnecessary panicky situation as they did by firing tear gas into a crowd without adequate escape route". It is bad enough that street toughs are blaming the police. What is worse is that, by the learned folks blaming the police without having heard all the evidence, who else could rise to the defense of the police! The action of the GBA was most reprehensible. The lawyers should have taken a cue from the statesman-like advise of the president, and provided further soothing statements to ease the pain that Ghanaians are currently going through.
I am not in anyway holding brief for the police. Having spent a few hours in police "custody" some years ago, I can attest to the sometimes irrational nature of police behavior. But the rush to judgement and condemnation of the police; and, the subsequent physical attacks on police officers have the tendency to deflate police morale such as it is. Worse, condemnation and attacks on the police will-nilly, leads to the loss of public confidence in a most important agency of the government which thrives on public confidence and support to execute its duties. Such a loss in public confidence will have a far more damaging effect on the maintenance of public order and public safety. That is why I consider president Kuffour's advise to the public to refrain from finger-pointing and scapegoating most appropriate.
Under the circumstances, there is enough blame to go around. The actions of the police underscores the paucity in police training regimen pertaining to modern crowd control tactics. The wanton use of tear gas by the Ghana Police Force is legendary. It is matched only by their disregard as to when and where to fire tear gas canisters at Ghanaians. By its very nature, tear gas releases noxious fumes that intoxicates the individual, burns the eyes, and causes panic in a crowd. The end result is stampeding by the crowd in order to escape the noxious fumes. Thus, tear gas should hardly be fired in enclosed areas, or in areas where people are packed liked sardines such as at the sports stadium. The rush to escape becomes a death trap-like stampede when escapes routes are not close-by, or when the routes are blocked by cascading humans as happened at the stadium!
Hindsight, it is said, is 20/20. And, it is much easier now, to conjecture what the police should have done, or could have done. However, the police used similar tactics at the same stadium last December at a football game. Why, the police decided to arm themselves with tear gas as a crowd control mechanism, again, is rather mind-boggling!
What this tragedy reveals is that the Ghana Police Force lacks adequate training in modern crowd control. It needs such training badly. And it needs such training now. There should have been enough public outcry when similar method was used to try to quell fan misbehavior at the Accra stadium last December, when tear gas were thrown into the stands abutting the VIP stand! In retrospect, that seemed to have been the tip of the iceberg!!
It is preposterous to talk about any silver lining in a tragedy such as this. But if the tragic death of 126 of our fellow citizens leads to public awareness of the need to provide adequate funding for the Ghana Police Force to turn them from enforcers to the peace officers that we expect them to be; then one can crudely say that the people would not have died in vain. It is a gross understatement to say that the Ghana Police Force is under-funded. Successive military governments in nearly the last thirty years sacrificed funding for the police at the altar of the military in order to ensure that "amenities" for the military is well taken care of!! This neglect of the police has reduced the morale of the men and women; and increased corruption as the officers try to make do, anyway they can. That is the reality.
It is now time for Ghanaians to comprehend the urgency of more funding for the police to ensure that they have the proper training and resources to maintain public order and public safety. Perhaps, had Rawlings government, guaranteed a multi-million-dollar loan for the police just as he did for the American woman in Atlanta who used the money to buy property; or had Mr. Victor Selormey (former finance Minister), granted a few millions to the police for work not done, as he offered to his "consultant"; the police would not be so cash-strapped. Corruption in high places in Ghana has siphoned money intended for national development into individual pockets and foreign bank accounts.
When the media reports of criminals over-running police stations because the criminals were better armed and better-resourced, as often as they are made, such reports receive mere winks from Ghanaians. In some cases, it is said some policemen have had to buy their own uniforms and boots. Hardly does a police station have transportation to chase the crooks! It is the apparent lack of resources that has contributed partly to the inability of the police to solve the crimes of murder that are being perpetrated against our women in Accra.
In the current atmosphere of public resentment against the police, it will not surprise me if the acting IGP Mr. Ernest Owusu-Poku, and the Okudzeto Commission of Enquiry (which is investigating the Accra tragedy), decided to make a few police officers scape-goats to soothe public anger and dismay. As horrible as it may sound, the police officers who shot the teargas were following what they had been taught. It is the Ghana Police Training Manual (if there is one) that needs complete overhaul.
I shudder to add that under the Rawlings regime, even his civilian cabinet members had to undergo military training, in order to get a certain "military mentality and toughness" to doing things! I am sure the police received similar doses of Rawlings' peculiar training regimen!!
The 'military mentality' of the police must be done away with immediately through re-training. While the Army must perform an act on order (do before complain!); the police must act according to the law in their relationship with the citizenry.
There is another scenario to the tragedy in Accra! What happened at the Accra stadium on May 9, 2001; and the subsequent rampage and arson at Nima were man-made tragedies that reflected the corrosive effect of the coarsening of the Ghanaian culture, traceable to the past twenty years when a whole generation was fed on a culture of: deception; greed; indiscipline; corruption; incivility; disdain for authority; and disrespect for law and order!
The rresponsible behavior of the crowd that precipitated the police action, is partly symptomatic of the lawlessness and Machoman justice that pervaded Ghana in the last twenty years. I recall scenes in the 1970's where Ghanaian players and fans were roughed up in neighboring countries. When Asante Kotoko played the Togolese team Etoile Filante in Lome in the 1970's, I can still recall a photo in the newspapers, of a battered and bruised Kotoko captain and right-winger Yaw Sam who was beaten by fans of the Togolese club. In the same era, fans of our national team, the Black Stars were beaten-up in Lagos, and their bus burnt. All these incidents did not elicit responses from Ghanaian fans when Togolese and Nigerian teams played in return matches or subsequent games. At both the Kumase and Accra sports stadiums, I have witnessed unruly fans being booed and handed over to the police by other fans, during more important matches than the one that was played last Wednesday.
The incivility in our national discourse when a president could mount a stage and use foul language against his opponents, as Rawlings did on numerous occasions, set the tone for bandits. Folks, we have witnessed a diminution of the national culture. Might was right. And civility got the hind parts!!!
It is indeed sad that so many Ghanaians have lost their lives prematurely at an event where they had gone to cheer up their beloved teams. But the fact must not be lost, that, when some of the fans began to destroy public property, and lobbed bottles and stadium seats that could cause injury to people in the stands, as well as to the players on the filed; those fans ceased to be that. They became mere thugs bent on causing damage to public property, and causing injury to other peacefully assembled Ghanaians.
Among the people who suffered their share of tear gas smoke at the Accra stadium were the head of the Confederation of Africa Football (CAF), Mr. Issa Hayatou, and the former vice-president of Ghana Professor Atta Mills. One would have thought that the GFA would have come out of that embarrassment with a few changes to their modus operandi at the stadium. The GFA whose overhaul is long overdue, held on to its script. When I was much younger, I sometimes looked forward to the opening of the gates towards the end of a football match at the Kumase stadium that allowed what was derisively called "asikafuo" (the wealthy)-- a hallucinatory reference to those who could not afford the gate fee - to catch the 'last minute' of a football game!! It sounds incredulous that the GFA still closes gates until the end of a game!
Much advise could be given to the GFA if it were prone to considering them. I am sure GFA officials have traveled the globe and realized what measures have been taken, especially in Europe, to control fan violence. It will be too much, and perhaps too costly at this time, to ask the GFA to instal closed-circuit cameras at the stadiums. When fan mis-behavior led to several deaths in the Congo, one official was unrepentant about admitting more fans than the stadium could hold; "we could have gone for a hundred thousand people", he lamented! The stadium was built for a little over twenty thousand!! African football officials "pack them in". It does not help, that some officials actually print their own tickets in order to pocket some money at the expense of the public. Should the GFA re-consider the archaic method of selling tickets only on game days, much of the frustration of the Ghanaian football fan will be assuaged. The treatment meted to fans on game days as they struggle to purchase tickets is horrible and simply disgraceful.
Whatever measures undertaken by the Police and the GFA to ensure safety at our stadiums, must be buttressed by public education that emphasizes fan safety and respectful behavior by football fans. In the USA, coaches actually do get on the microphone during a game to berate disruptive fan behavior during games; and the fans comply. The GFA must also ban the sale of beverages in bottles, and must ban the use of bottles for whatever purpose at the stadium. Again, in the USA, paper cups are the norm for beverage sales at stadiums. The GFA must also consider posting identifiably clad marshals in the stands to finger out potential trouble-makers during games.
These measures must not be too costly for the GFA to implement in Ghana! And then perhaps, with adequate and proper police training; as well as fan 'education', the tragedy of May 9, 2001; may not be repeated!


Kofi Ellison
Kofi Ellison, © 2000

The author has 60 publications published on Modern Ghana. Column Page: KofiEllison

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